Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

When I began researching superheroes over a decade ago, one of the earliest texts I found was an obscure British penny-dreadful about Spring-Heeled Jack — an orientalist character supposedly born in India. Like other orientalist texts, this one has absolutely nothing to do with any actual place. But since I am currently traveling in India with my family, I thought I would schedule a post from the Spring-Heeled Jack section of my 2013 article “The Imperial Superhero,” later revised into a chapter for Superhero Comics (2017).

Summarizing the postcolonial critique of nineteenth-century British literature, Ania Loomba declares “no work of fiction written during that period, no matter how inward-looking, esoteric or apolitical it announces itself to be, can remain uninflected by colonial cadences” (2005: 73). The claim applies particularly to the body of literature that produced the pre-comics superhero. Emerging as a sub-genre of juvenile literature, the character type is an amalgamated product of several pre-existing and overlapping genres—juvenile fantasy, adventure, science fiction, detective fiction—each with its own nineteenth-century colonialist ties.

Daphne Kutzer laments how scholars too often ignore children’s texts and their role in forming a “national allegory,” texts which from the late nineteenth century to early World War II “encourage child readers to accept the values of imperialism” (2000: xiii). Jo-Ann Wallace identifies “the rise of nineteenth-century colonial imperialism” with “the emergence of … a ‘golden age’ of English children’s literature,” a genre of “primarily … fantasy literature” (1994: 172), with the term “imperialism” coming into popular use during this fantasy age’s middle decade of the 1890s (Eperjesi 2005: 7). Edward Said also cites “fantasy” as a primary example of “generically determined writing” that produces and shares orientalism’s “cumulative and corporate identity” (1978: 202). Fantasy is especially conducive to imperialist projections, as Elleke Boehmer emphasizes “the way in which the West perceived the East as taking the form of its own fantasies” (2005: 43). When defining “colonial literature,” Boehmer offers H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 lost world fantasy adventure King Solomon’s Mines as her representative example of a novel “reflecting a colonial ethos” and “the quest beyond the frontiers of civilization” as a defining motif of all colonial literature (2). Jeffrey Richards views adventure literature as “not just a mirror of the age but an active agency” that energized and validated “the myth of empire as a vehicle for excitement, adventure and wish-fulfillment through action” (1989: 2–3). John Rieder similarly observes how “the Victorian vogue for adventure fiction in general seems to ride the rising tide of imperial expansion,” while “the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century is also the crucial period for the emergence of” science fiction (2008: 4, 2–3). Patricia Kerkslake reads science fiction as an exploration of “the notion of power formed within the construct of empire, especially when interrogated by the general theories of postcoloniality” (2007: 3). Caroline Reitz applies a parallel approach to detective fiction, reading the figure of the detective “as a representative of the British Empire” who rose in popularity as Victorian national identity shifted “from suspicion of to identification with the imperial project” (2004: xiii). Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins critique not only the adventure story for its associations “with colonizing pioneers and ethno-centric notions of racial superiority” (2000: 13), but the multi-genre figure of the hero whose “notions of exemplary value … influenced children’s literature through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth” and whose “moral virtues … were always articulated through the ideological frameworks of gender, imperialism, and national identity” (4). By combining these genres, the superhero is a depository and melding point for a multitude of imperial tropes and attitudes.

The earliest known manifestation is Spring-Heeled Jack who, paralleling Britain’s expansion from an empire of chartered entrepreneurs to one of direct governance, appeared in “at least a dozen plays, penny dreadfuls, story paper serials, and dime novel stories” (Nevins 2005: 821). Inspired by sensational newspaper accounts of a demonic assailant, John Thomas Haines brought the character to stage in 1840, followed by Alfred Coates’s 1866 penny dreadful. Alfred S. Burrage reimagined the character for two serials, the first also in 1886. John Springhall lists Spring-Heeled Jack among several highly popular penny dreadful characters (1994: 571), part of what Sheila Egoff identifies as a “brand of fantasy” that grew because boys “had little else to read in the adventure line after they had read Robinson Crusoe” (1980: 414). “In format, illustration, content, and popularity,” writes Egoff, such serial stories in boys’ sensational magazines “were matched only by the rise and influence of the comic book in the mid-twentieth century” (413). Peter Coogan acknowledges the character as the first “to fulfill the core definitional elements of the superhero” (2006: 177), and Jess Nevins declares him “the source of the 20th century concept of the dual identity costumed hero” (2005: 822).

It is striking then how deeply Spring-Heeled Jack is immersed in colonial narratives. In Alfred Burrage’s first treatment, Jack’s father is “a younger son” who “as was frequently the case in those days … had been sent out to India to see what he could do for himself” (1885: unpaginated). “[F]ortunes could be made in India by any who had fair connection, plenty of pluck, and plenty of industry,” and so Jack’s father “managed to shake the ‘pagado tree’ to a pretty fair extent,” resulting in his ownership of “plantation after plantation in the Presidencies.” After his death, the family’s lawyer plots with Jack’s cousin to cheat Jack of his inheritance, including “the Indian plantations.” The outlying colonial possessions both initiate the plot and provide its fantastical solution. Jack explains:

“I had for a tutor an old Moonshee, who had formerly been connected with a troop of conjurers … this Moonshee taught me the mechanism of a boot which … enabled him to spring fifteen or twenty feet in the air, and from thirty to forty feet in a horizontal direction.”

With the aid of this “magical boot” which “savoured strongly of sorcery,” Jack robs his enemies until his inheritance is restored. The old Moonshee (or munshi, an Urdu term for a writer which became synonymous with clerks and secretaries during British rule) is the first incarnation of Wonderman’s turbaned Tibetan, both variants of the magical mentor type transposed to a colonial setting. In both cases, a Westerner takes an Asian’s fantastical object to gain power at the metropolitan center of the empire, or metropole. Although narratively a hero, “Jack, who had been brought up under the shadow of the East India Company, had not many scruples as to the course of life he had resolved to adopt. To him pillage and robbery seemed to be the right of the well-born.”

As one of the first dual-identity heroes, Jack also imports a secondary persona that is not only contrastingly alien to his primary self but magical and demonic. As Richard Reynolds observes of the comic’s superhero character type: “His costume marks him out as a proponent of change and exoticism,” but because of his split self he “is both the exotic and the agent of order which brings the exotic to book” (1992: 83). Robert Young similarly notes how many nineteenth-century novels “are concerned with meeting and incorporating the culture of the other” and so “often fantasize crossing into it, though rarely so completely as when Dr Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde” (1995: 3). So complete a binary transformation, while rare in other genres, is one of the defining tropes of the comic’s superhero, where a Jekyll-controlled Hyde defines what Marc Singer identifies as “the generic ideology of the superhero” in which “exotic outsiders …work to preserve” the status quo (2002: 110).

Jack’s relationship to the racial Other expresses itself beyond his Indian-powered and devil-inspired disguise. Due to his colonial childhood, Jack is no longer simply European: “‘I am not yet sixteen, but, thanks to my Oriental birth, I look more like twenty.’” He has been altered by living away from his empire’s center. Jack has absorbed an element of the alien, a dramatization of how imperial culture is inevitably altered by the cultures it dominates. Looking at recent conventions in science fiction, Kerslake proposes that “extreme travel must render the traveler into a different form” as “a component of Othering” (2007: 17). If “the place of departure is the traveler’s cultural ‘centre,’” Kerslakes asks “how far a person must now proceed before he or she reaches the indefinable edge of a nebulous periphery” or, more simply, “At what point do we become Other?” (18). The figure of the superhero embodies this question.

Spring-Heeled Jack also established the trope of the non-European mentor of a European protagonist, one more widely popularized by Kipling’s 1901 Kim, a novel Said classifies with works of Conan Doyle and Haggard in “the genre of adventure-imperialism” (1993: 155). Kipling depicts “a guru from Tibet” who needs an English boy in order to achieve his life quest, and Kim in turn treats him “precisely as he would have investigated a new building or a strange festival in Lahore city. The lama was his trove, and he purposed to take possession” (Kipling 1998: 6, 13). While no superhero, Kim does, in Said’s analysis, possesses a “remarkable gift for disguise” and fulfills “a wish-fantasy of someone who would like to think that everything is possible, that one can go anywhere and be anything,” a “‘going native’” fantasy permissible only “on the rock-like foundations of European power” (1993: 158, 160, 161).

Spring-Heeled Jack emerged during England’s expansion as an imperial power and, after numerous Victorian publications, vanished during the British Empire’s transition from traditional colonies to self-governing but British-dominated settler nations. Australia gained dominion status in 1901, followed by Canada, Newfoundland, and New Zealand in 1907. Anxiety over this transition can be seen in Baroness Orczy’s 1905 The Scarlet Pimpernel—the most cited of early superhero texts—in which the plot-driving periphery contracts to France and the threat of a newly independent, democratic mob. Similarly, when Burrage reinvented Spring-Heeled Jack for his 1904 serial, he removed the character from his Indian origins and recast him in relationship to the Napoleonic wars. The post-Victorian serial was discontinued before it reached narrative closure (Nevins 2005: 824). Martin Green argues that “Britain after 1918 stopped enjoying adventure stories” because such narratives “become less relevant and attractive to a society which has ceased to expand and has begun to repent its former imperialism” (1984: 4). In contrast, the United States continued as “a world ruler,” making the adventure story “a peculiarly American form” (4–5). The British Empire and the British superhero halted together, but the narrative type and its colonialist underpinnings were adopted by American authors as the United States pursued its own imperial ambitions.

Tags: ,

%d bloggers like this: